Composer Peter Mennin; Music with a 'face' -- something for all time
"If the listener is bored, why should anyone ask him to listen?" So reasons American composer Peter Mennin, who has composed some of this century's least boring music.
Beginning with his postwar graduate days at the Eastman School of Music, Peter Mennin rose with astonishing speed to the status of a composer to be reckoned with (but also gladly listened to). This, in an era of American artistic history unrivaled for fertility and achievement, and packed with eminent creative personalities. His doctoral thesis, the Third Symphony, was taken up and recorded by Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic soon after its completion (in 1946), and awards, grants, commissions, and performances lost no time in finding him. He had written six symphonies by age 30. Mennin joined the faculty of the Juilliard School in 1947, where he remained until 1958, when he became the director of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. In 1962 he returned to Juilliard, this time to succeed William Schuman as president, a position in which he remains.
Mennin's symphonies now total nine, and he is at work on an opera (his first) , as well as continuing in a host of adjunct activities, from the Naumburg Foundation to the US State Department Advisory Committee on the Arts. Awards for Mr. Mennin's music have been numerous and commissions have come from orchestras in Cleveland, Dallas, and Louisville and from the Coolidge Foundation , the ABC and NBC networks, and the Ford Foundation, among others.
The hallmarks of Peter Mennin's persuasive music have always been the long, singing melodic line coupled with an incredible rhythmic drive. Mr. Mennin happens to be one of the few composers of our time whose works are truly unmistakable for anyone else's. Equally true is the observation that he has managed to fuse a commitment to the highest symphonic ideals to his conviction that the knowledgeable listener must be involved, spoken to, and satisfied.
An affable, gentle man, he balances composing and administrative duties, which he describes as "taxing but manageable." His gentleness notwithstanding, he is possessed of precise opinions on the subject of truth in musical statements. In his sunny, spacious studio/office at Juilliard, Mr. Mennin recently reflected on the qualities of constancy and growth in his music, while sharing some of his views on the creative process and the importance, in composers, of many kinds of integrity. Talking with him was David Owens, assistant editor of The Home Forum. The first half of this interview appeared on yesterday's Home Forum page.m
What do you make of the widely held belief that the sounds of the awant-garde require that we recondition our hearing and powers of abstract recognition?
May I call all that nonsense?!
You may with me.
Because when you're expressing yourself, you're not going to raise all these philosophical questions. It's hard enough to be able to express yourself and have all the technique at your command to do so, without getting involved with self-absorbed philosophy. What great composers were great philosophers? They did it through their music. And there are too many composers who write program notes to accompany their peices, which are longer than the pieces themselves.
One might even say the explanations are vitally necessary to the compositions , which couldn't otherwise stand alone.
Exactly. For me, if there's no reaction to the sound, reading about it is not the reason why I wrote the music. Now, if someone asked me to write about the symphonies of, say, Mahler or Bruckner, I would find that quite easy. But I would find it virtually impossible to write about my music, which I've been expending my lifeblood in looking at from the inside out. Suddenly to have to look at it from the outside in . . . .
At a certain point, unless compositional technique reflects a creative impulse, a creative drive, it doesn't mean anything. It's a nice intellectual toy, but unless it serves music it's an encumbrance. It's not something that you build on. The means have to make it easy for the composer to express what he's trying to say. The history of music is full of practitioners who primarily enjoyed the mechanics of composing music more than the sound of it; it's nothing new to the contemporary period.
There have been other periods in which composers wrote such complex, nonaural music that, with the passage of time, they were forgotten, and the Beethovens and the Bachs and the Palestrinas remain. The same thing will happen for the 20 th century. So many names that are now given priority, as being composers of great advancement, may well fall later into oblivion.
And this often comes of exploring music as a world of science, a world of astronomy, whatever. But the major composers who create and have their own musical voices don't do it. They just compose better than anybody else. You cannot name one major composer who invented a new universe. "It's the successors of those who try, who then pick up that universe and create music for it!m I can't at the moment think of a major composer who was a musical scientist at the same time. Not one. Because those "major league boys" didn't inventm anything, they merely wrote great music.
We forget, in our age of commerce, how much these major composers learned by studying, copying, emulating, digesting the music that came before them. But, after all that assimilation, still there's a personality coming through.
It's on the strength and character of his musical ideas that the composer stands and says, "This is what I believe in." Techniques are only the language through which the ideas flow.
Composers so frequently stop at the imitating, "disciple" stage.
Too often, in recent decades of composition, the characteristics of music that are supposed to give it individuality and personality have been ignored.That's where the big problem is, I think. That's why there are so many, many pieces today whose sections could be interchanged, and you wouldn't know the difference, or who wrote them. It becomes neutral.m And I can't stand neutral music. I'd rather have an elementary composition that has some personality to it. There's not enough individuality around. That's almost become a dirty world. But in the realm of art, without it, permanence is impossible. The only thing that lasts, after a long period of time, is what one human being can bring that is peculiarly his own and not anyone else's.
C major, depending on how you use it, can be like on absolutely new sound. Stravinsky proves this quite well in his Symphony of Psalms,m where that C major is something fresh.
The long melodic line is something that has strongly identified your music throughout the years.
The long line. Probably the culmination of that is with my Seventh Symphony, which is basically onem long movement, with different sections, and which is, in a sense, technically the most involved. But the long line is something I have always believed in. Though certain things have changed a little bit, the long, singing line hasn't; it's something that, to this very moment, I believe in, and I think it's one of the reasons why one writes music.
The survival of musical forms makes an interesting history. They are gradually developed and changed, of course. But isn't there always the danger, with the older ones, of their being treated by many, not as live means of expression, but as systems slavishly followed? One thinks of the academic preservation of "sonata form": something which is forever first theme, second theme/development/recapitulation/coda.
Any composer who tells me that he writes according to a system -- I immediately distrust him! Because that tells me he needs the security of a system instead of the security of his innards. Any system is a kind of a security blanket. And frankly, again, none of the great composers ever had a "system." Look -- if you examine all 104 of the Haydn symphony first movements, you will find not one is the same as any other. In a sense, sonata form is a state of mind. These so-called forms are evolved by need: the need to keep the music fresh and balanced, and to avoid boredom by having the proper variety.
Since you are in the midst of composing an opera, I assume you are optimistic about the survival of that medium?
Yes. I'm afraid I am not one of those people who have negative feelings about any form, because I think outlets of expression are there of somebody to come along and do something positive with them. In the process, ha maym change it, but I think history is just a matter of slow evolution. To me, there should be no really sharp break between periods. I would hate, for instance, to feel that my music couldn't be programmed alongside Beethoven, Brahms, or Wagner.
Of course, one thing we haven't covered -- speaking of the "survival" of a form like the symphony -- is the issue of audiences and accessibility.
The bigger an audience becomes, I would say, the more conservative it becomes. Because if you try to please a middle ground, there are greater problems. And elite groups are not good, either: you know, you have groups that only go to contemporary music programs, others that only go to hear music of the 18th and 19th centuries. Thatm is the worst thing that can happen to music, because if you love music, you should love all of it. That doesn't mean you're going to love every piece, but you're going to love every period, because great music does exist in every period. And I don't think the 20th century will end up having had that much more bad music than any other peoriod. A lot of it is simply going to fall by the wayside because it won't hold up under repetition.
Look, we even read of Beethoven's having had great admiration for Cherubini. So what do we do? From time to time there's a revival of Cherubini, but he's hardly one of the major composers that gets programmed. So, that dropping-away process has to go on; certain works are just going to be dropped, and, surprisingly, some works that may not have been pressed into service will in time become more and more important.
Why is that?
Because the repertoire demands to be replenished with fresh, less hackneyed material all the time. Slowly but constantly. Otherwise, if composers don't write for the orchestra anymore, or for opera, that will mean the slow demise of that medium. But I think as long as there are great works from the past, we're going to find a way of performing them, and adding to the repertoire.
What about creative things going on in the present?
The continued performance of the masterworks of the past will help to continue an interest through the 20th century.
Creative work today, you mean?
Oh yes. I do. I have to believe this because, otherwise, I would have to feel that the end has come. And I don't believe that at all.
What about the programs orchestras put together?
I think orchestras 25 years ago did more contemporary music than they do now. Then there was a slow recession of interest, and within the next few years I expect it to become much more interesting again. I don't think things just go up steadily. I think there are always little setbacks here and there.
In the long run, if a large body of interested musicians and listeners didn't like Bach, Beethoven, or Stravinsky, they wouldn't be played, because there's so much going on in contemporary music. Some of it is highly worthwhile, some of it is adventurous and very good -- and there are also a few phony composers who perpetrate a lot of nonsense. It's hard for the general audience to make distinctions. It all comes under the heading of contemporary music, and they sometimes don't quite know what to do when confronted with a piece that is serious and well made but hard to take.
It becomes difficult to distinguish what's worthy from what isn't.
But, you know, if something is terribly important to the composer, and he does express it well, and he has something to say, I don't think he can avoidm being accessible -- at an earlier or later time (for an audience isn't always going to get it right away). If the notes, on the other hand, don't arouse the listener, they don't mean anything, and the listener will be bored. There was a whole generation of works that were imitating Webern. Webern was a very good composer -- for Webern, not for everybody else. He was not pointing the direction for everybody else.
In an earlier part of our talk, in speaking about tonality, you suggested some definitions for it that are, I think, much broader than have occurred to most people. Am I correct?
Perhaps. Because withm tonality, there is also atonality. You see, every idea has to generate a kind of a center. Even serial [12-tone] music does that, in a practical sense. In my Eighth Symphony you might not recognize the tonality, as such, but I feel it very tonal, even though in many spots there are all 12 notes being used simultaneously. But what I mean by tonality is the stabilitym that one gets in the old works, with Beethoven, Brahms, or whomever. In the 20th century, now, you can't have the same simplicity of tonality, but you must give the same stability.m But again, it's only a means to an end. In each case, I want to point out the specific ideas around which the piece revolves.To me, there's no reason to turn a musical theory into sound, if you don't have musical ideas.
The only way you are going to be able to express yourself is through musical ideas: specific ones, that you can point to as ideas. That's what makes composing dangerous.m Because then you're exposed.
How many pieces of contemporary music have you heard, in which you really don't know where you are? And that's because it has no . . . face. No musical face. The brain provides the means for enlarging the composition you're writing , for knowing what to do, but it's your guts that tell you what the basic idea should be.
Some people don't know what on Earth I'm talking about when I say "ideas," but I have no better way of saying it. As music evolves and is being performed, it has to have its musical face. History isn't going to care for music that doesn't.